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McLean, Allan (1840–1911)

by John Rickard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Allan McLean (1840-1911), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

Allan McLean (1840-1911), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23371122

Allan McLean (1840-1911), stock and station agent and politician, was born on 3 February 1840 at Oban in the Highlands of Scotland, son of Charles McLean and his wife Anne, née McLellan. According to Allan his parents 'were practically frozen out of Scotland' by 'an exceptionally severe winter'. In 1842 Charles, his wife and son, and his brother Angus migrated to Sydney, where Charles was offered the management of Captain MacAlister's sheep-runs in newly discovered Gippsland. Indeed, Mrs McLean was said to be the first white woman to cross the Glengarry River into north Gippsland. By 1848 the brothers had, with Simon Gillies, established their own Glenaladale station on the Mitchell River, originally estimated at 105,640 acres (42,751 ha).

Allan McLean grew up in the relative isolation of a settlement whose only communication with Melbourne was by sea. Although he had no memories of Scotland, McLean always spoke with something of a Highland burr. He was educated at home and at the Tarraville school, and brought up in the Catholic faith of his ancestors. By 16 he was said to have graduated as a bushman, a 'dashing young station hand [who] could tame a warrigal, put a mob of cattle over a river, dance a reel, play the bagpipes until the skirl came screaming back from the hills, or sing a Scottish ballad in broad Gaelic with the fire and pathos of an ancient minstrel'. McLean recalled the Aborigines as being 'very troublesome'; he also had a 'vivid recollection' of the bushfires of Black Thursday, 1851, when the smoke turned day into night. His uncle Angus wrote two novels which drew on the McLeans' pioneering experiences—Lindigo, the White Woman, or the Highland Girl's Captivity Among Australian Blacks (Melbourne, 1866), based on the 'White Woman of Gippsland' legend, and Harry Bloomfield or the Adventures of an Early Australian Squatter (1888). McLean himself dabbled in verse: in 1888 his Rural Poems were published locally at Sale.

On 12 July 1866 he married Margaret Badalia Shinnick (d.1884) at Stratford. In 1865 McLean and his brother Norman had taken up the lease on the Lowlands station, near Sale; seven years later he formed A. McLean & Co., stock and station agents, Maffra, in which Norman joined him. Branches were later established in Traralgon, Bairnsdale, Warragul, Mirboo and Melbourne. The success of the enterprise owed much to McLean's inimitable reputation as an auctioneer. He became a councillor of Avon Shire in 1873, and three times president of Maffra Shire. He was also active in helping to form the Municipal Association of Victoria.

It was a natural transition for him, therefore, to be elected to the Legislative Assembly for Gippsland North in 1880. He first gained office in the Munro and Shiels governments (November 1890–January 1893) as president of the board of land and works and commissioner of crown lands and survey throughout, chief secretary from April 1891, and minister of agriculture briefly. He was minister without portfolio in the Turner government from September 1894 until April 1898, when he resigned in opposition to the proposed Federal constitution. In November 1899 he successfully moved a motion of no confidence in the government whereupon he became premier and chief secretary, retaining office until his ministry lost its majority in the November 1900 election.

In his early years McLean described himself as a constitutionalist, but his advocacy of protection, in particular the stock tax, seemed to identify him increasingly as a liberal. He was a friend and associate of William Shiels, serving in his government and supporting his claims for liberal leadership in 1894. Shiels in turn helped to manage McLean's own bid for power in 1899 and became treasurer in his government.

Liberal or not, McLean was always very conscious of representing the rural interest. He was one of the few Victorian politicians to oppose the draft constitution in 1898-99, but his reasons for doing so were essentially provincial. He criticized the provision for senators being elected by the entire State, arguing that this would give too much power to the cities. He regretted the abrupt abolition of colonial tariffs, his particular concern being the effect of Victoria giving up the stock tax to which he was so attached. He also complained that the State would be losing the power to encourage new industries. McLean's involvement at this time in the development of the sugar-beet industry at Maffra gave him a particular reason for being suspicious of the economic effects of Federation.

McLean's devotion to rural interests was also evident in his accession to power in 1899. He became the spokesman for a group of country liberals who were dissatisfied with the water-supply advance relief bill, and the makeshift alliance with the conservative Opposition and a few discontented radicals that emerged was sufficient to oust the long-lived Turner government. McLean's cabinet included a notable conservative newcomer, (Sir) William Irvine, whose appointment as attorney-general was seen by some as belying the claim that the government was a liberal one.

In fact, McLean's policies differed little from his predecessor's. Perhaps the new premier's greatest success was the re-enactment of the Factory Act in 1900. The bill which had been proposed by Turner's chief secretary, (Sir) Alexander Peacock, gave the governor-in-council power to create a board for any trade carried on in a factory. The Legislative Council objected, and demanded parliamentary control of the creation of new boards by requiring a resolution of both Houses, thus giving the council a veto. A conference between the Houses took place at a time when, with the onset of Federation, many thought it prudent to avoid a constitutional confrontation. McLean proposed an ingenious compromise, namely that a board could be created on the resolution of either House; it was sufficient to break the impasse, and it made possible the rapid expansion of the wages board system.

Although at the time it was seen as 'a mere shuffling of the political cards', as H. G. Turner put it, the overthrow of the Turner government signalled the end of the old liberal coalition of manufacturers, trade unions and farmers. The political alliance which sustained McLean was to be developed by Irvine into Victoria's particular brand of anti-Labor ascendancy. The organizing of the country liberals also foreshadowed the emergence, some twenty years later, of the Country Party.

Following the defeat of his government in November 1900 McLean entered the new Commonwealth parliament as member for Gippsland. Elected in the protectionist interest, he supported the Barton and Deakin governments, but when Labor briefly took office in 1904 McLean was among the conservative protectionists who joined with the free traders, led by (Sir) George Reid, to defeat the government in August. Both Turner and McLean served in the ensuing coalition government, but Turner, pleading ill health, ceded the leadership of the cabinet protectionists to McLean, who became minister for trade and customs and Reid's deputy. The Reid-McLean government passed the Arbitration Act which had triggered the defeat of both the Deakin and Watson governments, but itself had only a precarious majority. After a long parliamentary recess a new alliance between Deakin and Labor brought about the government's defeat in June 1905. Although the Reid-McLean coalition was a political failure it foreshadowed the anti-Labor Fusion of 1909; once again McLean had played an important part in shaping the new political order.

In the 1906 election McLean was surprisingly defeated in his Gippsland homeland. Ill health, especially rheumatism, had prevented him from fighting an active campaign and was blamed for his defeat, but in an era of increasingly sectarian politics it is also possible that his Catholicism was a disadvantage. If so, this was an irony because McLean was an ardent Imperialist and hardly part of the colonial Irish Catholic mainstream; religion seemed to play little part in his politics.

As a politician McLean very much identified with his region. The early settlers, it was said, 'almost worshipped him', and as a pioneer and a 'character' he was part of Gippsland's history. According to Reid he 'united the best qualities of a Highlander with the best qualities of an Australian colonist'. But if his Scottish background endowed him with a colourful image, McLean's political manner eschewed emotion and embraced the values of homely common sense. Like many an advocate of rural interests he believed that 'a large peasant population would lead to a sound form of Government'; similarly, he welcomed female suffrage as promoting 'a more solid family vote'.

On 8 September 1885 McLean had married a widow Emily Macarthur, née Linton, at Port Melbourne. He died on 13 July 1911, after several months illness, at his Melbourne residence at Albert Park. His body was taken to Sale, where Bishop Corbett officiated at the burial. His wife and seven children of his first marriage survived him. His estate was valued for probate at £53,573.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Reid, My Reminiscences (Lond, 1917)
  • H. H. Peck, Memoirs of a Stockman (Melb, 1957)
  • J. W. Leslie and H. C. Cowie (eds), The Wind Still Blows (Sale, 1973)
  • J. Rickard, Class and Politics (Canb, 1976)
  • P. Loveday, A. W. Martin and R. S. Parker (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • R. Spreadborough and H. Anderson, Victorian Squatters (Melb, 1983)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1883, p 41, 1897, p 586, 1899, p 1147
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 Feb, 25 Aug 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28 Jan 1905, 14 July 1911
  • Maffra Spectator, 17 July 1911
  • private information.

Citation details

John Rickard, 'McLean, Allan (1840–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mclean-allan-7413/text12895, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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